Welcome to the Spotlight Series! Each month we’ll feature a different Unitarian Universalist congregation or community that is doing effective, innovative or otherwise interesting ministry with young adults.–Ed.
“At Penn State, Unitarian Universalism is synonymous with acceptance,” says Hayly Hoch, the vice president of the UU student organization there. She credits the Unitarian Universalist Students (UUS) with helping her understand what community truly means and supporting her to pursue her dreams. Kelly Diaz, the group’s original founder and current president calls it a “tight knit and passionate” community that has helped her grow spiritually. It is clear that this campus ministry is making a big difference in the lives of its core members. But the group goes beyond affecting those in the inner circle.
UUS is an active group and they are dedicated to serving others. They provide inclusive spiritual programs for people of many religious backgrounds from atheists to Buddhists to Catholics. They offer Our Whole Lives (OWL) - comprehensive sexuality education for young adults, and a program called Finding Your Path, which was so popular that once they ran out of sessions in the curriculum they began to create their own topics and questions in order to continue. They also volunteer together, primarily at Shaver’s Creek Nature Center. They’ve been exploring local justice issues as well, and are discerning how they might take action on issues such as prison reform and workplace equality for LGBT people. The group also takes time for fun activities such as campfires, hikes and movie nights.
Starting out with just a few interested students in 2011, the group’s former coordinator, Travis Tennesenn remembers having small groups of 5-8 students over to his house for campfires. By the 2013-14 academic year they had upwards of 20 students attending their programs and had been named Spiritual Organization of the year on their campus. Still, reaching out to new members is a challenge for the group. Kelly notes that most of their new members come because they heard about the group from a friend, but it’s hard to reach those who aren’t yet connected. “People shy away from what they don’t know and very few people know what Unitarian Universalism is.” Hayly explains that while their programs such as Finding Your Path might get 25 attendees in one session, their organizational meetings could be as small as 3 people. So getting people to commit to moving the group forward is also a struggle.
Still there’s much to celebrate in what this group has accomplished. As Erin Carter, their incoming campus coordinator, explains “they provide a safe space to discuss taboo topics.” Hayly agrees, noting that everyone’s story, opinion or perspective is valued during Finding Your Path sessions.
Not only is the space welcoming, but the topics are interesting. Kelly gives examples of some of the questions they’ve focused on during Finding Your Path, “What is one decision you regret and how have you learned from it? What are you most proud of yourself for? What is the hardest obstacle you've ever overcome? These are topics that can be really interesting to think and talk about honestly, but not something that usually comes up in conversation at a party or bar or classroom… The people who come once or twice keep coming back.”
In addition to the safe space on campus, the group stays connected with the UU Fellowship of Centre County, attending services and inviting church members to volunteer with the students. Next year they are hoping to start a program connecting students with local UU families for a “home away from home” experience that benefits everyone involved.
Whether they’re engaging at their local UU Fellowship, providing inclusive programs on campus or volunteering at a nature center, it is clear that the UUs of Penn State are living Unitarian Universalism and sharing it with the world through their actions and their supportive community.
Special thanks to Travis Tennessen whom I spoke to on google+, and Erin Carter, Kelly Diaz and Hayly Hoch who sent me their stories via email so I could write this piece!
Does your UU congregation or community do exciting ministry with young adults? Email Annie at firstname.lastname@example.org to set up an interview and get your group in the Spotlight Series!